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President Trump’s executive order that bans refugees and immigrants from six predominately Muslim nations from entering the United States, at first blush, has little to do with educational policy. Yet, upon closer inspection, this xenophobic action is possibly telling of the president’s vision regarding America’s public schools.
What, then, does this executive ban on refugees say about the president’s educational agenda? One possibility, of course, is nothing. Given Trump’s documented pattern of short-sighted, almost impulsive action, it is certainly conceivable that his executive order is not part of any comprehensive plan that connects to educational policy. He, then, is merely fulfilling his campaign promises to address the largely unwarranted fear of Middle Eastern families fleeing tumult and civil war.
Similarly, it is also possible that President Trump is woefully unaware of the social purposes of a public education system. That is, schooling at taxpayers’ expense has long had a broader aim than merely an individual’s academic or economic advancement. America’s system of public schools developed in the first half of the nineteenth century with the justification that the training of the coming generations to be upstanding democratic citizens was a social necessity. The nineteenth century was a time of massive waves of immigration and, as such, it was fully understood and accepted that these new institutions would assimilate newcomers to the norms and values of the United States (although, at times and for some groups, the Americanization process was too heavy-handed and sought more to undermine the immigrants’ cultural traditions than to inculcate democratic values).
The ban also could point to the notion that the president and his advisors have lost faith in the acculturating power of America’s public institutions, notably its schools. This view is not without historical precedent. During the Progressive Era, many Americans feared that the public schools could not adequately Americanize the large numbers of refugees and immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe. As a consequence, various restrictions were put on immigration, culminating with the Johnson-Reed Act of the 1920s which essentially eliminated the flow of Italians, Poles, and Russian Jews—groups that were deemed inferior and dangerous—into the United States.
Most concerning, however, is that President Trump’s executive ban on Muslim refugees is intimately connected with his educational agenda. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, seemed to confirm this view by suggesting that all of the president’s executive orders and cabinet nominations were part of a larger agenda to “deconstruct” current governmental policies and regulations. Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is certainly no champion of public education. Instead, she has advocated for for-profit charter schools and school vouchers. If taken to the extreme, a hodgepodge of private and charter schools would replace public education in America. With no coherent public system—a system with a civic mission devoted to promoting democratic ideals and values—perhaps the simplest way to address the xenophobia that the president and his supporters feel is outright immigration restriction.
I have long thought it strange that the political leaders who express the greatest fear of immigrants and refugees also undermine the public schools that aim at developing engaged and thoughtful democratic citizens, thus making that such fears unnecessary. But, perhaps it is not so odd if, in the end, their goal is to eliminate the very system of public educational institutions that promote civic responsibility and a democratic ethic.
Paul J. Ramsey is an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University and is the author of numerous works on the history of immigrant education, including Bilingual Public Schooling in the United States: A History of America’s “Polyglot Boardinghouse”(Palgrave Macmillan).